Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Gelman and the politics in poetry

Argentine poet Juan Gelman (1930-2014) died last month. President Cristina Fernández proclaimed three day’s of national mourning. Argentina’s flags flew at half-mast. Yet there was no state funeral for Gelman. Instead his ashes were spread in Mexico on the slopes of Popocatépetl.

Such was Gelman’s admiration for writer/poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648-95) that he had asked that his ashes be spread near her childhood home in Nepantla. His widow and friends fulfilled Gelman’s request by tossing his ashes from a railroad bridge into a fast running stream.

Gelman had been living in exile in France when his daughter, son and pregnant daughter-in-law were seized by a repressive Argentina government in 1976. His son and daughter-in-law were killed; their infant child disappeared. Gelman spent 20 years in an ultimately successful search for the child. Throughout his life, he used his poetic voice to bring attention to injustice. Gelman relocated to Mexico and for many years wrote from here for Argentina’s “Página 12.”

Each time I visit the Sor Juana Museum I take a detour to that bridge. On the way is an abandoned steam locomotive. It may be the same locomotive that broke down around the turn of the 20th century leaving Mexican poet Amado Nervo (1870-1919) and other passengers stranded in Nepantla for three star-lit hours. Nervo wrote about his delight having time to walk the same streets Sor Juana had walked as a child all the while wondering which had been her house.

Amado Nervo became the Mexican ambassador to Argentina and Uruguay. When he died in Montevideo the Uruguayan president dispatched the cruiser “Uruguay” to repatriate his remains.
I asked Digs collaborator Carol Hopkins “what is it about poets — especially Latin American poets — that earns them such acclaim?” She answered by quoting other poets.

“A good poem speaks volumes in mere words,” Indian poet Meena Alexander has said. “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. In time of violence, their task is, in some way, to reconcile us to our world and to allow us a measure of tenderness and grace with which to exist.”

A British anthology of poetry published last October, “In Protest: 150 Poems for Human Rights,” contains poems about slavery, indigenous human rights, massacres, genocide — even the current war in Syria. The book’s editor, Helle Abelivik-Lawson, says: “Reading and writing poetry is a therapeutic way to process some of the darker aspects of humanity. That said, it’s not all doom and gloom — there are some very empowering, fun and funny poems in this book.” 

Many of Carol’s favorite poets are singer-songwriters. Harry Chapin (1942-81) often gave three concerts a day, donating 50 percent of all proceeds to world hunger programs. When asked about his commitment on a radio program, Harry answered, “Pete Seeger was asked the same question. Pete said: ‘I don’t know whether anything I’ve done has made a difference in the world.’ This said by a man who stood up for every progressive cause of the 20th century. ‘What I do know is that my commitment to those causes has allowed me to be with the people with the live eyes, live hearts, live heads and that has been its own reward.’”

Two weeks after Juan Gelman’s death, Pete Seeger (1919-2014) died. Though they used different mediums, both spent their lives in the ether of poetry, struggling for justice while enduring heroic clashes with governments that tried to silence and imprison them. Both were fortunate to live long enough to die lionized — Gelman acclaimed throughout the Spanish-speaking world; Pete Seeger invited to sing at President Obama’s inauguration — and at Occupy Wall Street.

Last Sunday, in a long ranging conversation, I asked Minneapolis-based writer/poet Alison Morse for her view on why Latin American poets gain such acclaim. She told me: “There is a tradition in Latin American poetry of having the responsibility to be the bearer of news in poetry. It’s about giving voice to things that can’t be given voice to. There is a different view of language in Latin America — it involves turning language into art. Reading poetry in the United States isn’t as important as it is here.”

Referring to Mexican poet Javier Sicilia, who ends every speech and article with a signature paragraph that begins with “Además opino …” (“Furthermore, I am of the opinion that …) followed by a listing of the political demands of the social groups he supports, Alison said, “That’s poetry!” Adding, “If he did that in the United States he’d be a Saturday Night Live skit. On the other hand people would probably love him. Maybe poets in the United States just aren’t as brave. However, there are some U.S. poets that are really proud they’ve been banned from school libraries in Arizona. Banned because they’re too political or because they have other languages in their poems, besides English.”

Perhaps it all boils down to what Max said to Liesel in the wonderful new movie The Book Thief. “Words are life.”

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